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Wednesday, 13 October 1971
Page: 2301


Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I would like to speak about these estimates in the context of Aboriginal affairs. Firstly, I would like to say that I am very impressed with the quick action that has been taken in regard to the high mortality rate of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. It might be helpful for the Committee to know that the particulars about this distressing situation in the Northern Territory came to light in the most effective way through the activities of the Commonwealth Public Works Committee which derived, from the Reverend Keith Downing and other witnesses who were upon oath, a factual account of the very unfortunate circumstances that prevail in that area. There is no need for me to reiterate the details of the situation. The facts are that the mortality rate of Aboriginal children in central Australia doubled m 12 months; that of every 50 Aboriginal children born, 11 died in early childhood; that the 201 -bed hospital at Alice Springs was accommodating 240 patients; that there were 2 and 3 children to a bed and sometimes 3 or 4 to an oxygen tent.

The fact of the matter is that the Government, through the inquiries conducted on behalf of this Parliament by the Public Works Committee, acted on the situation in Alice Springs. Without quibble I pay tribute and express thanks for the work done there. But I believe it is necessary to make the point that the kind of situation that was in evidence in Alice Springs is still in evidence in other parts of Australia. It is fortunate that the Commonwealth lias responsibility for and the prerogative over these matters relating to Alice Springs.

But I believe that we have been derelict in the obligations and responsibilities we have had entrusted to us as a result of the referendum when the people of Australia overwhelmingly gave the imprimatur to the Commonwealth to take initiatives. Still we are engaging in this process of buck passing - the Commonwealth to the States and vice versa. I believe it is necessary for the Commonwealth to accept responsibility for Aboriginal people wherever they are, whether it be Commonwealth territory or State territory. It is not good enough to allow States to put the needs of Aboriginal people, these deprived people, under the various headings of housing, health, education and so on, right at the end of the queue. It is just as competent for the Commonwealth to take initiatives about these deprived people as it was for the Commonwealth to take the initiatives about the deprived people who came back from the war. We all know what happened in regard to the provision of war service homes, rehabilitation schemes, education schemes and matters of that kind.

So I make this point in total. Because there has been some placation of the most dramatically revealed hardship suffered by the Aboriginal people that does not mean to say that there has been a total alleviation of the problem because the problems of malnutrition, bad housing, the lack of employment, indeed the product of all the paternalism that goes into situations where Aboriginal people are not self sufficient, are in evidence in many of the States. So I hope to see the Commonwealth show the kind of initiative elsewhere that it has shown in the Northern Territory.

In certain parts of Australia a person's chances of going to prison are 340 times higher if he is a person of Aboriginal descent. This startling figure reveals the tragedy of human demeanment as represented by Australia's treatment of or the indifference meted out to the Aboriginal people. This figure does not mean that Aborigines are 340 times more lawless than is the non-Aboriginal population. It can mean, as I think it does mean, that there is discrimination against Aborigines in the enforcement of Australia's criminal law.

Recently I asked the Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts (Mr Howson) the following question:

What proportion of (a) the population, (b) all prisoners and (c) all persons with criminal convictions is represented by persons of Aboriginal descent in each State and the Northern Territory.

Through the lack of information figures could be given for only South Australia and Western Australia. The Minister said that in South Australia the Aboriginal population was 0.13 per cent of the total population. He said also that Aboriginal people represented 30.89 per cent of all prisoners in that State for 1969-70. On those figures a South Australian Aborigine has 340 more chances of going to prison than has a non-Aboriginal South Australian. These are not my figures; they have been worked out by mathematicians in the Parliamentary Library from the answer given by the Minister. Actually the position is much worse, as the Minister has understated the Aboriginal population. According to census figures, the total population of South Australia was 1,079,380 and there were 5,505 full blood Aborigines - full blood, mind you. I had asked about people of Aboriginal descent. Instead of there being an Aboriginal population of 0.13 per cent it would be more like 0.5 per cent, which would make the Aboriginal imprisonment rate an even higher proportion of the total.

The figures given indicate that in Western Australia the Aboriginal population is 2.4 per cent of the total and that Aboriginal prisoners constitute 41.3 per cent of total prisoners. This means that in Western Australia an Aboriginal person has 29 more chances than has a white person of going to prison. These figures provided by the Minister are generally in accord with the results of a study completed by the Monash University Faculty of Law. Here the study revealed that Aborigines comprised only 2.5 per cent of the general population yet accounted for 25 per cent of all prisoners and 11 per cent of all criminal convictions. The supposition that there is discrimination between Aborigines and whites in the administration of justice has been tested by several academics and by the Opposition's Aboriginal Affairs Committee, of which I am a member.

Dr E.M. Eggleston dissected 4,000 cases heard by courts in 10 Western Australian towns. Included in her findings were these facts: There was excessive attention to Aboriginal reserves and camps by .police; there was a police emphasis on certain. offences such as drunkenness affecting Aborigines; attitudes of individual police were significant, affecting for example the decision whether to prosecute where Aboriginal people were involved; white people found under the influence were less likely to be arrested than were Aborigines; Aborigines were less likely to be granted bail than whites; poverty was often' the reason an Aborigine was not released on bail; poverty and lack of education resulted in many Aborigines not obtaining legal representation. In every category of offence the percentage of those charged receiving prison sentences was higher among Aborigines. Lastly, our legal system generally ignores the existence of tribal laws.

I am very pleased to note that examinations into this matter are being conducted. Recently I drew the attention of the Minister to the fact that in many parts of Australia Aboriginal people are being discriminated against as far as justice is concerned. I am very pleased that the Minister has arranged for the Police Commissioner of New South. Wales to conduct inquiries into the type of matter to which I have referred. The committee of which I am a member has looked at the situation in the western part of New South Wales and has found it to be appalling. It is not good enough, I suggest to the Minister, that he should require the Police Commissioner ot New South Wales alone to look at this matter. This is a national problem and it should be looked at by the police commissioners of each of the States. Overwhelming evidence exists, even with the limited studies that have been done, that in every State, with the exception of Tasmania where we disposed of our Aboriginal community many, many years ago by most unbecoming techniques and methods, Aboriginal people are receiving the kind of justice which has prompted the Minister to call for an inquiry in New South Wales. I hope that he does likewise in every other State.

The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN (Mr Cope) - Order! The honourable member's time has expired.







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